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Mass. residents narrowly oppose allowing driver’s licenses for people without legal immigration status, poll finds

A protest march in support of a bill to allow people in Massachusetts without legal immigration status to get driver's licenses.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

In February, the Massachusetts House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow people without legal immigration status to get driver’s licenses. On Thursday, the state Senate looks poised to do the same.

But Massachusetts residents as a whole are not as enthusiastic about the idea.

A narrow plurality of Massachusetts residents — 47 percent — say they oppose such legislation, while 46 percent support it, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of Massachusetts residents. About 7 percent said they were unsure.

The bill, which has been backed by law enforcement groups, immigrant rights advocates, and insurance companies, would affect the roughly 250,000 undocumented people living in Massachusetts — and, its supporters contend, the millions they share the roads with — and has been debated for years.

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The result of the statewide survey, conducted by phone April 24-28, was within the poll’s margin of error. Among the 800 Massachusetts residents polled, those who opposed the legislation leaned older, more male, and Republican.

James Connors, a poll respondent from Stoughton, told the Globe he supports creating pathways for citizenship, but that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be able to get driver’s licenses.

“I don’t think undocumented people should have any rights. They are here illegally,” Connors, a 61-year-old Democrat and municipal worker, said. “I care about people and I think people should have a way to become legal citizens. . . . If they can make some kind of process like DACA to make them legal, then I would agree with them getting the license.”

The House approved the driver’s license legislation with enough votes to overcome a potential veto from Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the concept.

“This license we’re talking about is not a privilege-to-drive card, which is what they have in a bunch of other states. It looks exactly like a Massachusetts driver’s license,” Baker said during a March appearance on GBH’s Boston Public Radio. “You can’t tell the difference between this and a regular one.”

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Senators have said they’re confident they, too, will pass it with veto-proof support when it’s expected to emerge on Thursday. Supporters in the chamber said the bill is crucial to allowing immigrant parents, including those with children born in the United States, to drive them to doctor appointments or school without fear of being pulled over for small infractions and being detained because of their immigration status.

“For many immigrants across our commonwealth, this legislation is personal,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said at a news conference last week. “Many of you have shared your stories, and I want you to know: We hear you.”

Some poll respondents who said they opposed the idea told Globe reporters in later interviews that they felt more comfortable with the bill once they learned more details, including language clarifying that applicants would not be registered to vote under the state’s automatic voter-registration law and that the Massachusetts standard license that would be issued is different from a REAL ID one.

A REAL ID is considered a valid form of federal ID and, beginning in May 2023, is the only form of a driver’s license that Massachusetts residents can use to board a plane in the United States.

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Andrew Schuyler, a 49-year-old graduate student who is not enrolled in a political party, said his concern was that someone could use the ID to travel, but would have expressed support if he knew the license up for debate belonged to a different tier.

“A concern I had was the idea of using it to travel, identify yourself. I don’t know that I would necessarily oppose it,” Schuyler, of Melrose, said. “If someone is here and they are going through the process hopefully to gain citizenship and they need to get to their job to be productive in their community . . . I would think that it is a good thing for them to do that, to get in a car and drive legally.”

For years, the measure was framed by advocates as an issue of social justice, but found more success when it was tightened in an effort to draw more support from conservative members of the Legislature — and from law enforcement.

The version of the bill the House passed in February requires that undocumented residents prove their identity with documents such as a foreign passport and birth certificate, and is backed by the majority of the state’s sheriffs and district attorneys, as well as the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police.

Senate leaders said last weekthat the version they’re voting on is “very close” to the House’s, aside from what they described as technical differences.

Of the 46 percent of respondents who support the legislation, some said the idea “seems obvious.”

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“If you’re driving on the road you should have a license and insurance,” said Brian Fox, a 34-year-old Democrat from Shrewsbury. “It seems silly to go against that. It seems really xenophobic.”

Those who identified as Democrats were far more likely to support the measure, with 69 percent backing it. Meanwhile, just 19 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of unenrolled voters supported it.

The results also had a wide gender gap: 55 percent of men opposed the concept, while 53 percent of women supported it.

If the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join 16 other states and the District of Columbia as jurisdictions that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The new ID requirements would take effect on July 1, 2023.

The poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.